Raw, Sweet, Smoky, Smooth
by Amy Cotler
It’s real now. She’s curled to one side, her tiny frame in the bed, covered only by a thin sheet and the flat city light from her apartment window. Her breathing is shallow. Sometimes her colorless lips ask for water, but mainly she sleeps. Sometimes she wakes just long enough for my adult daughter to feed tiny chunks of wet cantaloupe directly from her fingers into her grandmother’s, my mother’s, dry mouth.
“Good,” my mother says, as if she’s never tried her beloved melon. As if she hasn’t always spoken in endless sentences, only rarely coming up for air.
The fruit is fresh and startlingly fragrant. It’s in season. And in Manhattan it’s hot. So hot that I can smell the raw melon from under its rind as I pass the sidewalk fruit stands on my way uptown. To my mother’s apartment. To tend to her death.
Why am I so hungry? Eating so much, more than I need, as my mother’s appetite wains? Chinese noodles and chili-chocolate? My sisters joke that we gain one pound for each pound she loses. And she’s lost 50. Our mom, always eating, reading diet books, attending countless meetings to lose weight, has lost her appetite. Her lack is my gain. My new hunger feels familiar, from childhood, not biological. I dive into a lox and bagel sandwich on my way uptown. An olive is pressed into the bagel’s hole, the cream cheese overflowing onto the inside of my plastic wrapped breakfast.
Hours later, sitting by her bed, I feel my mother’s discomfort as if she is a peeled grape, no skin protecting her from the inevitable. And so, hungry once more, I leave her to her aide, a calm woman of faith, before escaping to lunch. Over to Amsterdam Avenue and slightly south, I sit in empty air-conditioned restaurant, devoid of decor, diving into a pile of sashimi, shiny and raw, punctuated by my dip-dip into soy. Each slice of fish draws me, its rawness not really slippery but glistening with vitality.
I crave raw during those weeks in my mother’s apartment. And organizing her place, rummaging through her tiny fridge, throwing out never-to-be-eaten borscht and cream cheese, doesn’t stave off my lust for raw. But I’m lucky. Before my sister departs she takes me to an ivory colored bistro, where I order my favorite Island Creek oysters. Their firm mouth-pop and sea breeze smell is followed by an unlikely main course of beef tartar and salad. They don’t make sense as a meal, together. But my supper of oysters, paired with the raw beef’s get-up-and-go, revives me for the following day by my mom’s side.
This intense attraction to raw is new to me. After all, cooked food is part of my DNA, as a human, the only species that eats food cooked. Like the rest of my clan, I’ve evolved to be drawn in. Cooked food’s seared aroma signals that it will nourish me with sugars and proteins. And of course, it lets me know that it’s heated, and so safer to eat. But death draws out my animal need for raw.
The steak tartar comes with a tossed salad. The particular salad, on this plate, in this time, speaks to me with its simplicity — small leaves, uncut, fresh from some field not far, lightly coated with olive oil and a touch of salt, then tossed again with just a light squeeze of lemon juice. Or so it seems. And so, I need it to seem. The leaves appear almost but not quite naked. Raw, ready for what will come.
Sweet and Smoky
On the morning after my mother’s death, I find myself sitting on a stump beside my husband, in front of our 19th-century barn, lifting a still-warm spoonful of caramel sauce into my mouth from my favorite small metal bowl. It’s odd. I’ve never made a caramel sauce. Maybe that’s because I have a mild discomfort when I work with so much sugar at one time. It seems too volatile, so easy to burn. The side of salmon is smoking on the Weber grill beside us, its domed cap unable to contain the rich flavor. I wake up in my mother’s bed where I’ve been sleeping, and remember where I am.
Immediately, I begin to think of people long gone. There was a boy I lived with in my twenties who taught me to love freshly ground coffee in a shop in the Village on a street that smelled of fresh brew, in a time before chain coffee shops. And a cook I kissed on the deserted elevated highway downtown. Though I didn’t love him in that way, he gave me my first Italian cookbook, with his sloppy signature and a perfect recipe for pork braised in milk. Three years later I fetched him the hamburger and fries he requested, as he lay dying and blind in his New York City bed, his macrobiotic friends chanting for his recovery.
How green the grass was in my dream. And the barn behind us that my husband painted red. I begin to see that it’s fading in spots, when a feeling starts to come into my arms. Is it fear? It creeps into my chest and then eyes. Though I don’t quite cry, I remember. My mommy’s dead.
I know that good salmon is impossible to get where we’ll move to soon, far away in the high desert. My husband is visiting there now, 4000 miles away. We’ll no longer live in our house with its barn. And all my beloved nesting bowls, including the one with the caramel from my dream, will be gone. But hanging with my hub on a summer day, stirring something sweet while a side of savory salmon smokes beside us, just might be heaven.
Three days after my mom’s death, I woke, as ever, ravenous. I began to crave pudding, though I’d already emptied the pudding cups from her fridge. Even after my mother stopped cooking, at 80-something, her half fridge was forever stuffed with food, as it had been in our suburban home years before. But now it bulged with store-bought smoked white fish salad and cold borscht, as well as cups of pudding. She’d take a bite here or there, but that’s about it. Her beau scarfed the rest. The corners of her mouth rose as she watched him eat, so proud to have found him, a hearty eater who could dance the tango at 80.
Alone in her apartment, I set about emptying her wallet, her dirty social security card. And then her kitchen cabinets. The case of Ritz crackers and stale matzos. Her box of hefty Shredded Wheat, three to a sleeve, reminded me of our neighbor’s field in New England. It was dotted with rolled bales of hay, or “God’s Shredded Wheat,” as my mother called them. I pressed my cheek against the last unfinished sleeve, then emptied it into the trash.
After I set aside the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, hopeful but hardly used, I reached for the wooden box on top of her cabinets that held her silver, silver I owned too in the same pattern. But as I pulled the box down, a plate sitting on top of it fell toward me, skimming the top of my head before crashing to the floor into more pieces than necessary.
Soon a Greek chorus of women arrived, students from her ceramics class. They looked through her collection of sculptures and the bowls that once held vigorous salads. Platters where hams had sat brazenly, ready to be carved by guests. An Indian student, her favorite perhaps, stood carefully bubble wrapping a bowl that was deliberately torn at its edges. I hoped she would fill it with chicken masala that glowed orange against it shiny brown glaze.
One of my mom’s small bronzes, a shepherd, wire staff in his grip, watched her friends take pieces of her life with them. There he stood, hip to one side, jauntily tending his sheep. Us, I suppose. No doubt my mom had never seen a single lamb, much less a shepherd, in Plainfield New Jersey, where she grew up. She’d never seen a baby’s crying face appear on a rock either. But that didn’t stop her from painting one on a rock I’ll take home, when I go home. When she was strong, I watched her throw down 50 pounds of clay on her table to knead. And I was proud. I could still see her throwing a butterflied leg of lamb on the hot grill with the same confidence, before slicing it ever so thinly, its ruby center reeling us in.
When I returned to the kitchen to escape her students’ voices, I spotted her Victorian sugar spoon with tiny holes in its bowl, a spoon I’d always coveted. It was her mom’s and her mom’s mom’s, I think. Held over oatmeal or tea, the sugar ran through in thin streams. I’d waited for it, knowing that it would one day sit perfectly inside the sugar bowl on my kitchen shelf far away, back home. The sugar bowl had been hers, which she made with her own hands, years before. And it still holds a tiny clay woman on top, lying on her side, naked.
It’s true that I’d already emptied the processed pudding cups from the fridge. But I was hungry for better pudding, the kind my mom curled up with all her life. Her dentist told her never to eat pudding again because it stuck to her teeth. But that didn’t stop her. She ate rice pudding with raisins swelling in their creamy base. And I imitated her by feeding warm pudding with just a touch of cinnamon to my daughter while we watched TV. Before she lost her appetite completely, my mom and I fished chunks of smooth seafood from the savory custard that she introduced me to, in a posh Japanese joint in Manhattan. The two of us spooned it into our mouths simultaneously. I’ll never know the name of that Japanese custard because there is no one to ask. And Googling the question isn’t asking mommy, is it?
Now I know what I was craving when I woke up. It wasn’t pudding at all, but a spoonful from one of those glass custard cups with fluted edges, always chilled in the fridge of my youth. They bore a slight crust, with fresh nutmeg grated on top. But the day moved on. The sky began to darken, and I left her almost-empty apartment hungry once more.
No, I don’t think it was a betrayal of my mom’s love that on my last day in her place I sat at a sushi bar. My dad was the sushi boy. She liked it, sure. But he was the World War II veteran who fell in love with the enemy’s food. He was gone too. They had been divorced for almost half a century, but still, it felt a little off.
Mom was the pudding girl. But somehow I’d walked past the sidewalk café that featured fanciful hors d'oeuvres and $1 oysters, followed by her pudding, spooned out of espresso cups, on the house. I’d eaten there on the day after her death, thinking my mom would have approved of the sidewalk tables, the pudding, the diners clinking their little spoons as they scrapped the last of their pudding from the square base of their cups. It was happy hour and we were grateful.
Amy is a food professional, cookbook author and very good eater. She was an early leader in the farm-to-table movement, food forum host for the New York Times and creator of 1000 recipes for Joy of Cooking and other publications. Her current writing is a departure into the world of culinary memoir.
From the Editor